Monday, January 31, 2005

What to make of the Iraqi elections. There's something immediately iconic and even inspiring about those women with the purple fingers (much cooler than those lame "I Voted" stickers they hand out here) who very much risked their lives yesterday. Still, democracy (if that's really what's happening) is not for one people to bestow upon another, is it? I suppose what we have here is a radically accelerated version of the ninteenth-century colonial situation, in which imperial powers forced their own institutions on subjugated peoples, only to be slowly and painfully forced out by those who took their masters' promises most seriously. But for every democratic India there are a dozen tinpot dictatorships in the postcolonial world, and the wounds of colonization have proven to be deep and lasting. I do not think the Iraqi people will forgive us very soon.

While reading Grood Poet No. 2 this morning, I realized that one quality I highly value in a given poet's work is cleverness or wit, which often though not always shades into self-consciousness about the rhetorical or cultural situation of the poem as a whole. This preference for wit may better explain why I am so easily bored by so-called mainstream poets like Sharon Olds, Philip Levine, or even Jorie Graham than the mainstream-post-avant axis we're all using as our most basic mode of orientation these days. Earnestness had better be backed up by visionary power, intellectual insight (Graham sometimes achieves the latter, more rarely the former), or compelling music (Levine's "They Feed They Lion" is one of my favorite poems). Mere wit isn't very satisfying either, but the attention it pays to scintillating surfaces may pay off in spite of the poet's seeming superficiality, because possibilities for meaning are always lurking beneath word combinations like the ice under an iceberg. Needless to say, wit is not identical with humor: I love a funny poet, but if the humor is merely anecdotal or arises from a "high concept" incongruity (as with the weaker poems of James Tate and his imitators), the poem is not likely to leave much of an imprint on my mental retina.

That said, today's grood poet, Kevin Davies, is a past master of that rare and remarkable combination, earnest wit. This is cleverness with something at stake, similar to the case of John Donne when the same quicksilver intelligence he applies to seduction and dalliance is turned onto the direst questions of salvation. Davies has a bold and socially acute imagination: a Marxist Ashbery. Some of his best work is available online: there's a PDF available of his book Pause Button over at UbuWeb and his magnificent longish poem Lateral Argument is available from The Alterran Poetry Assemblage. As Davies writes in the long poem "Apocryphon" in his great book Comp, "There's a hum coming from the metacorporate world-ruler-thing-dinger": he is a fierce critic of both the neoliberal capitalist "thing-dinger" and the superstructural cultural "hum" ("What's that humming sound?") it produces, a hum that includes and indicts both pop culture and the post-avant. "Apocryphon" ends with lines that show a sardonic awareness of the awkward class position Davies and his probably equally overeducated and underemployed reader occupies: "A flabbergasted A-student type. // You can more or less count on being part of the control group." A shorter piece in Comp, "Untitled Poem from the First Clinton Administration," skewers our neoliberal nineties complacency, with what passed for progressivism in those diminished years revelaing itself as "An unfunded social wish list." But what I'm quoting doesn't give you an idea of Davies' rangey (I almost typed ragey) wit. To wit:
               A crony comes over and says the following
Stop being so obvious
When a new word enters the language
No, wait, I can't think, you're pressuring me
I know you are but what am I
Truncated gerund
But that doesn't count for shit
The fuck needs to have his head shoved in a trunk and thrown off a ship
I'd break your leg but I like your hair
Poxy stock jock
Yeah like entering a new century is about to change us into Yellow Book elves
Space-age chipmunks
Running for office
I don't even play tennis
Shoot me if
OK but
Serb artillery
I'm Andy Benes in Sarajevo
France bombs atoll
Dad always said it was a skank notion
Cal Ripkin shot dead one game short of record
Happy birthday John Cage
Speed plus savagery: poetry as barbaric as it ought to be after Auschwitz/Rwanda/Srebenica. But Davies also manages to come across as someone I'd like to hang out with: funny, self-deprecating, filled with a yearning for justice and comradeship: "And abandoned amidst the happy clog dancing our presences aspire to." A stand-up engagé tragicomic. I heard the news today, oh boy.

Two things occur to me. One is that the younger poets who I'm nominating for majorhood are of my generation—"Generation X"—but perhaps four or five years older. The other is that it might be possible, or at least amusing, to apply Stevens' conditions for supreme fiction to each poet as a kind of measuring rod. That is, if the three primary values are Abstraction, Change, and Pleasure, then I would assign those values in that order to Jennifer Moxley's work. Kevin Davies, on the other hand, I receive as a Change-Pleasure-Abstraction poet, or CPA if you like. This is merely a question of perceived emphasis on my part and can in no way be quantified into a coherent system. But I'm a sucker for rapid graphemes (what maps call the "Legend") as a provisional means of putting the poetry universe in order.

Number 3 is a bloggers' favorite, so do tune in tomorrow.

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